Nightwatch — A Contemporary Ghost Story

            Harriet’s commute was already too long, but the Beltway traffic in and out of the district was turning it into a marathon drive — even when the weather was good. A little rain or, heaven forbid, snow and the hour and ten minute trip grew to two hours plus.


            ….Yes snow is on the way! We’re expecting anywhere between five and ten inches


before the storm passes up the coast. Of course, there’s a chance that it’ll hit a holding pattern and dump even more than ten on Fairfax, Prince William, Stafford and Fauquier counties in Northern Virginia and D.C. …


            John shut the sound off on the TV in the conference room.


            “You up for staying here tonight?” John was Harriet’s boss. His question wasn’t exactly a question. It wasn’t an order, either. Orders weren’t John’s style, but unless she had a compelling reason to say ‘no’ she knew that saying ‘yes’ was the only option.


            “Sure, no problem. I’ll just run out and pick up a few things.”


            “I’m sure you can find anything you need in the gift shop — a tooth brush and…”


            “John, if I’m stuck here over night I’ll need more than a tooth brush. I’ll need a change of underwear and…”


            “Yes, yes… of course. Run out and pick up a pair of pajamas, whatever you’ll need…” John rolled his eyes.


            Harriet took a deep breath and then smiled. John was basically a good guy, but that was the fundamental issue in their working relationship. He was a ‘guy,’ a man’s man and had little or no understanding of the more than 50 percent of the hotel’s workforce that was female. With evidence to the contrary, he still thought their business travelers were primarily male and was shocked that the expanded spa was such a success.


            “The costs of opening at six are prohibitive,” he had announced at a meeting. “No one really needs the sauna that early and why are we staying open until nine. Who goes for a massage and steam at nine?”


            “Women,” Harriet had replied. “Women in town on business. They like the spa facilities before they go to big meetings all day or after. Believe me. They will use it and we’ll see an uptick in bookings when we advertise the expanded hours.”


            Harriet wore him down and the trial paid off. It was just one of many times that Harriet’s, backed-by-numbers, perception of their clientele had proved to be correct. But he still didn’t get it. Harriet would need more than a toothbrush to spend the night. She picked up a few ‘necessities’ at the mall — including a paperback so she’d have something to read. She got back to the hotel just as the air was starting to grow thick with big, fluffy snowflakes. The staff was frantically salting the walkways and sweeping the still soft snow off to the edges of the parking lot.


“This is going to be a big one,” Alicia, the concierge, said as she greeted Harriet.   “Maybe as big as the one that hit the day after Christmas.” Harriet agreed, as she


brushed snowflakes from her hair. “That’s why I’m staying here tonight.”



            “We’re pretty much booked up,” Alicia said, with a sigh.


            Harriet had been in the business long enough to know that meant all the choice rooms were long gone. She’d be stuck in a single by the elevator in the new wing with paper-thin walls. Harriet walked behind the desk and looked over the desk clerk’s shoulder.


            “We’ve got a double on the second floor. Oh, no, the bathroom is being repaired today,” Rosa, the desk manager, said as she continued to scan for open rooms. “Very slim pickings…”


            “What about that one?” Harriet asked, when she noticed a vacancy in the oldest and most elegant portion of the hotel. “That’s a deluxe double with an antique footed tub, right?”


            “You don’t want that room,” Rosa replied. “We’ll put you in this nice single on the eighth floor. You can watch the snow accumulate in the parking lot and…”


            “What’s wrong with it?”


            “What’s wrong with what?”


            “With room 205 in the old wing? What do you think I’m talking about?”


            “Harriet wants to know what’s wrong with 205.” Rosa whispered into the house phone and Alicia at the other end of the lobby snapped to attention.


            “You don’t want that room,” Rosa repeated to Harriet, but avoided looking her in the eye.


            “Rosa, what’s going on here?”


            For a moment, Harriet was worried about the staff being involved in a something illegal. It had happened in hotels before, but it seemed extremely unlikely.


            “Rosa, what’s wrong with 205?” Harriet asked her straight out.


            “We don’t put anyone there anymore. It’s haunted,” Rosa whispered.


            “Haunted? Is that all? I grew up in a haunted house. A ghost is not a problem for me,” Harriet replied.


            Rosa, no doubt, thought Harriet was kidding, but she wasn’t. She had grown up in her family’s antebellum cottage, which, like all good homes from that period, came complete with a ghost. The stairs creaked. The pipes hummed. Open windows slid closed. Closed pocket doors slip ajar on their tracks. Teacups were found by the front porch swing. A mysterious wind ruffled the curtains and played the piano in the parlor on windless nights.


All the rooms that constituted the original building came alive at night. The new part of the house was dull and silent by comparison. At ten, Harriet had claimed the vacant bedroom off the kitchen. It was the epicenter of ghostly activity and she loved it. With a ghost in the house, you are never really alone.


            “We’ve given up on 205. We’ve just gotten too many complaints. No one lasts more than a night,” Rosa blushed.


            “Does John know about this?” Harriet asked.


            “Well, he knows about the complaints,” Alicia joined them behind the check-in desk. “But the ghost thing…. He keeps trying to get us to assign the room to guests, but each time there’s a complaint about noise and… well, weird stuff. John floated the idea of turning it into a small meeting room, but it just doesn’t make sense. It’s a lovely bedroom. Beautiful proportions and a view of the gardens — no way we can turn it into a glorified break room with an ice machine.”


            “The cleaning staff will only go near it during the day,” Rosa chimed in. “I’ll make sure they go in there with extra towels before it gets dark. If you want anything special, you’ll have a heck of time getting them to swing by after sunset.”


            Harriet got the key card for 205 and dropped her shopping bags off. On the surface the room was exactly like all the deluxe rooms in the old wing of the hotel. A handmade quilted bedspread, a bent wood rocker, local artisan rugs and baskets tempered the standard hotel décor — making the rooms worth an additional ten percent on the price list and keeping them off the Internet discount market. All these rooms went fast and first — all but 205.


            The bathroom was particularly appealing, with an oversized, footed bathtub and antique tiles on the walls. Harriet made sure there was plenty of bubble bath and body lotion, before going back to work. She didn’t return to the room until well after nine. After a long day, she had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant and an after-dinner drink with the organizers of an annual antiques conference. John may have saved her the commute in the snow, but he was certainly getting his money’s worth from the extra hours she spent at the hotel.


            She slipped her shoes off and ran a bubble bath, popping one of the chocolates left by the maid into her mouth as the water rose. She turned her back on the tub and began undressing, only to find that the water was draining as fast as it was pouring into the tub. Harriet, sitting on the edge of the tub in her panties and bra, dumped the rest of the bubble bath into the tub and held the plug in place until the tub was filled. She flipped the radio on, finished undressing and sank into the luxurious bubbles.


            That’s when the ghostly show began in earnest. The radio, set to a middle-of-the-road pop station, floated toward a classical station and remained there. A soprano soared above the chorus in Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. It was lovely.


            “Thank you ghost. This is perfect.”


            Harriet closed her eyes and let the tension in her legs release. A long day at work was physically challenging, like running a half marathon in heels. Her calf muscles ached and the balls of her feet would be better served by a life spent in supportive flats. She was very happy that she’d thought to include an inexpensive pair of ballet flats in her ‘necessities.’


            A warm, moist washcloth found its way to her forehead.


            “What a nice touch. Thank you ghost.”


            After she’d slathered her skin with scented body lotion and wrapped herself in one of the hotel’s signature, big, fluffy robes, Harriet heard the click of the electric kettle. She selected a mint tea bag and poured the hot water into a mug. She settled down to read.


            “That was very thoughtful ghost. I really need a good night’s sleep. Thank you.”


            Harriet yawned and found that she was reading the same sentence over and over again. It was almost eleven. She sighed and the reading lamp dimmed and then shut itself off completely.


            “Good night ghost. Good night.”


            Harriet did not feel self-conscious talking to the ghost. People talk to their dogs and to their plants without expecting an answer. The ghost was certainly as responsive as a well-trained dog? Wasn’t she? The ghost was female. That much she was sure of, the rest of the ghost’s former identity was a mystery for someone else to investigate. She simply cooperated with the ghost’s agenda for the evening — save the bath that she insisted on having — and the ghost had allowed that.


            During the night, Harriet heard the wind ‘singing’ in the distant trees and knew it was a ghostly lullaby. She dreamt about a tea party on a lawn. There was a large group of women laughing and enjoying the shade provided by a circle of willow trees. Among them there was a woman traveling from the north, a distant cousin, who wore her summer dress with the self-conscious manner of an outsider. She was quiet, polite and desperately trying to hide her desire to run away from the cheerful women, gossiping about people she’d never met and houses she had never visited.


“OK ghost, I get it. You just want to be treated like a welcome guest.”


At six-thirty the alarm on her phone buzzed, announcing that it was time to start dealing with snowed-in out-of-town travelers. Harriet took a quick shower, dressed and was out the door by ten minutes of seven. Downstairs in the lobby, she began addressing the needs of the various guests. Some would need to extend their stays due to canceled flights. Others insisted on trying to drive through the lingering snowfall, only to return a few minutes later and ask for their old rooms back. One asked for a pair of cross-country skis — a request Harriet was happy to accommodate. Most were mollified by the hot chocolate stand Harriet had arranged by the lobby bar.


The snow stopped and the staff did their best to clear the parking lot and pathways. No one could leave or arrive — except the skier — until the roads were cleared. So the guests and staff settled into a convivial hum of activity. Laptop wielding business people chatted in the bar. A school group from New Hampshire organized a snowman-building contest in the garden. The scheduled conference of antique dealers went on as scheduled.


By six, Harriet was exhausted. She checked in with the staff and they were holding up fairly well.


“I just got a heads up from the county. The highways are cleared and we’re in the next round. If anyone wants to drive they could leave tonight.” Alicia said.


“The airports?” Harriet asked.


“Starting flights, but only a few. We’ve got to tell them to connect directly with the airlines — S.O.P. for snow delays,” Alicia replied.


“So tomorrow night things will start to be normal?”


Alicia agreed.


“Oh, John called about an hour ago. I gave him a full report. He said to thank you for your extra efforts.”


“No he didn’t,” Harriet giggled. “I’ll bet he just asked why I had not called him and you told him I was running from pillar-to-post since before seven, and that I’d call when I had a bathroom break.”


“Pretty much,” Alicia nodded. “You were dealing with that crazy skier when he called.”


“I’ll call him now, from the back office where I can put my feet up.”


Harriet gave John a full report, including the additional expenses incurred and how they might offset some of the overtime with the full house in the restaurant, café and bar. She sent him a photo of the winning snowman from her phone. And then went to join the organizers of the antiques convention for a drink before their annual awards dinner.


“We lost some of the locals,” Philip, the association’s president said. “But the out-of-towners are making up for it. This is the oddest gathering in years, but we’ve got heavy attendance at seminars that would not have attracted anyone in a normal year.”


“Yes, every seat was filled for the haunted house speaker,” Brittany, the vice president, added.


“Haunted houses?” Harriet asked.


“Yes, this morning we had an antique dealer who has written a book on haunted houses. She just left — has a friend a few miles from here with an all-terrain vehicle. He came by to pick her up after her lecture.” Brittany explained.


“There’s an interest in traveling to haunted houses?” Harriet asked.


“Well, yes… there are people who travel a haunted house circuit. Different strokes for different folks,” Phillip replied.


“What about a haunted hotel?”


“That would be a big seller.” Phillip chuckled.


“Umm…” Harriet replied and ordered another round on the house.